To establish a facility in Sarasota County, they encourage the community to settle on someone to spearhead the drive
Opened about 18 months ago, the 24-hour Kearney Center homeless shelter in Tallahassee “really is a mall for social services, for human services,” Rick Kearney, CEO of Mainline Information Services, told the Sarasota County Commission and elected municipal leaders during the commission’s regular meeting on Sept. 20 in Sarasota.
More than 4,000 people have come through its doors, he explained.
The Kearney Center serves between 600 and 700 meals a day, Kearney pointed out, and it has had as many as 400 people sleep there on an especially hot or cold night, although it has about 270 beds. The goal, however, is to provide services the people need and help them become self-sufficient, he noted.
The 45 collaborating agencies in Leon County send representatives to the center at specific times, so people can go from one source of help to another, he explained. People show up with no identification, no money, health problems and issues with their children, for example, he continued.
The facility utilizes a “sophisticated computerized check-in system,” Kearney said. During that intake process, each person who comes to the center fills out a form, indicating the services he or she needs and to “make sure we all understand why they’re there.” Then the agency representatives assist them with signing up for food stamps, for example, or veterans’ benefits. If they need food, Kearney said, “we send them to lunch. … So it’s not just a homeless center.”
Tallahassee’s former shelter had some people stay as long as 20 years, he noted. “Our goal is to get them out.” He knew of instances, he said, when people had shown up mid-morning and by afternoon, the agency representatives had found transportation for them, given them food stamps, found them places to stay and lined up job interviews for them. “And they’re gone. … But if it takes two to three weeks, so be it.”
People who enter the facility have “to demonstrate to us that they seriously need a place to stay.”
In the effort to establish a facility for the homeless in Sarasota County, Kearney said, community leadership is the key, “whether it’s the nonprofits or some philanthropist or a group of philanthropists. This really needs to be driven by the private sector.”
Based on what he and other representatives from Tallahassee had heard in meetings with Sarasota County leaders earlier in the day, Kearney added, it appears “the public sector or the political sector” has been spearheading the initiative. “Things often don’t come off as smoothly” in that type of situation, he pointed out. “I would highly recommend that you choose a community leader — he or she — call it a CEO, call it a pilot, call it whatever, to lead this initiative and then let the city and the county [and other entities] rally behind them and support them.”
Kearney added, “In our case, money was the No. 1 issue at all times, and I don’t think that’s your No. 1 question. It may be 2 or 3 or 4.”
It appears to him, Kearney continued, that emotional or political or the “not-in-my-backyard” attitude has become the focal point in Sarasota County discussions.
Referring to the location of a Sarasota County shelter, Tallahassee City Commissioner Gil Ziffer said, “I wouldn’t get bogged down in that, either. I think the most important thing is to try to solve the people’s problems.”
In regard to establishing the Kearney Center, Ziffer said, “Did we step on toes? Yes. … But my community, my county, my city, my region is far better off than they were 18 months ago. The homeless community is far better off than it was 18 months ago. … We have far fewer people on our streets.”
In response to a question from Commissioner Christine Robinson, Ziffer said the federally mandated Point-in-Time count of homeless people each January showed that Leon County had more than 1,200 such individuals in 2013; two years ago, the number had dropped to 805. “This past year,” he said, it was 600. “So we had a pretty dramatic reduction of folks on the street.”
Demonstrating the center’s effectiveness
At the outset, Kearney told the board and the audience, “Now, it’s my understanding you guys pretty much have this all worked out: location, city, county, budgets,” drawing some chuckles. Underscoring that he knew that was not the case, he said, “I see some ‘frowny’ faces there. OK, well, I think we sympathize with what you’re going through, and what you want … ultimately is in the best interests of your brothers and sisters who are homeless and disadvantaged” in the community.
Sarasota city commissioners have focused on a Housing First initiative, while the County Commission has continued to seek a location to establish a come-as-you-are shelter.
Referring to Leon County, Ziffer explained, “We’re a unique community in that we have one city and one county, and we got along.”
He added, “We focus on rapid rehousing … [but] we have found that triage is just as important as getting [the homeless] into housing as quickly as possible.”
In Tallahassee, Kearney said, “We didn’t have a building; we didn’t have a program design. We didn’t have outcomes and measurements and funding sources.”
What the group did have, he pointed out, was people from 45 agencies representing, among them, the city, the state, the federal government, nonprofits and Florida State University — “all trying to help people find accommodations, get food, get medical attention. … All of us have been touched by these things …”
The reason his name ended up on the facility that was established, Kearney continued, was because “I was the stubborn one” who offered to provide the funding to make it a reality.
About two-thirds of the facility’s operating costs are provided by the private sector, he explained. However, community leaders are working through public relations and social media campaigns to spread the word statewide and nationally about the fact that the Kearney Center “is so far ahead of the rest of [the shelter programs in the United States].” The hope is that private funding will flow from other areas. “[The facility] needs to be self-supporting.”
Leon County leaders also are working to educate Florida’s legislators and Gov. Rick Scott, he continued, to show them how the strategy can end up reducing all sorts of expenses — from unemployment insurance to food stamps to overnight stays in hospitals. “These are not easy metrics to deliver, but that is our goal.”
A wide array of services
As he showed the board and the audience photos of the facility, Kearney pointed out that only single men and women are allowed to stay there. “This looks like a Hampton Inn, right?” he asked the audience. “This is dignity. This is giving people respect.” One key goal, he added, is “bringing somebody back into believing in themselves again. When you’re homeless or financially strapped, you give up; you give up hope.”
Explaining the operations of the Kearney Center in more detail, he said, “Sometimes I feel like we’re running a cruise ship.” Along with the service providers appearing in shifts to assist people, he noted, there are “literally dozens of activities throughout the day” — from GED classes to yoga classes, from smoking cessation treatment sessions to anger management sessions, and a basketball clinic. “We even have probation and parole officers come to us, so people don’t miss their appointments.”
He told the board and the audience, “We did it right, because, again, these people deserve the best there is.”